Britexit and Bigotry

The recent vote by the British people to withdraw from the European Union is making the headlines and has the international community abuzz. The “experts” pretty much agree that the major factor behind the vote is the increasing fear of foreign people coming into Britain. Isolationism by any other name is bigotry.

Bigotry, like the fear that fuels it, stems from ignorance and there are a number of causal factors that seem to be operating not only in Great Britain but in the United States as well — who, it is said, has just passed the mantle of the stupidest people on earth to the British. I have commented in numerous posts about the possible causes of this ignorance, to wit, the shift in news reporting toward entertainment and the deterioration of the school system. Interestingly enough the latter has been noted in Britain as well in the United States where both countries, in hot pursuit of “vocational education,” have fallen behind other “developed” nations in the intellectual skills of those who graduate from their schools.

F.D.R. famously said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. This is a wise and even a profound comment and was timely indeed. But it suggests what is impossible, namely that we can simply switch off fear like we would a light switch. Fear is a powerful emotion and it is fostered at this time by the entertainment industry and the schools — the former for sensationalizing every item of “news” and the latter from failing to make their students more aware and critical of what is going on around them.

But then, the schools have been forced to fill the vacuum resulting from the breakdown of families and the lack of any significant social role played by the Church. The schools, as a result, have for some time now been asked to raise our children while at the same time they are supposed to educate them. Both of these jobs are impossible — as Freud once suggested — but we demand it of our teachers none the less (while we pay them less than a living wage).

In a word, the only way to root out bigotry is through education, the acquisition of information (not misinformation) and the honing of critical thinking skills. Unless we as a nation determine that this is of major importance and begin to shift some of the billions of dollars now spent on “defense” into education and, at the same time, demand of the news media that they report facts and not more misinformation, that they not feed the fires of fear, we can expect to go the way of Great Britain.

Clearly, as shown by the success of a bigot like Donald Trump,  a responsive chord has been struck in the hearts (not the minds) of a great many Americans to build a wall and keep “foreigners” and “immigrants” out of this country. The very success of Donald Trump, as I have noted in the past, is testimony to the fact that our education system is failing and our entertainment industry has taken over the news media. We are flooded with misinformation half-truths, blatant falsehoods, and myths all disguised as the truth. And growing numbers of people don’t know how to sift through the trash and pick out what is worth knowing.

The result of all this is the fear that is almost palpable in this country and which was most evident in Britain in the recent vote. We fear that which we do not know. If we hear a noise in the other room and we know it isn’t the cat who is sleeping quietly beside us; we are afraid because we don’t know what is making the noise. Ignorance is at the core of fear.

Unless we address the root cause of this fear it makes no sense to talk about “having no fear.” We must gain control of our own minds and understand that those who differ from us do not really differ so much. We are all human and we are all in this together. Bigotry has no place at the table — except in the home of people like Donald Trump who simply don’t know any better.

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George Washington’s Failures

Washington Irving, author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” was named by his mother after the first president of the United States — who, it is said, blessed the lad early on, leading the boy to determine then and there to write the definitive biography of the man his mother so greatly admired. It was eventually written and, when Irving was 78, printed in five volumes. While somewhat adulatory, it is reputed to be one of the very best biographies of the remarkable first president. Sadly, it is currently out of print. Fortunately for us, however, the five volumes have been reduced to one fairly large paperback by Charles Neider who did a remarkable editing job and provided us with a very fine biography — and one well worth reading.

Early on in Washington’s career he was involved in the debacle led by the English General Braddock against the French and Indians in the West of the United States — Pennsylvania and Ohio, as it was then. Braddock was bull-headed and insisted on fighting the French and Indians the way he might have fought the Spanish or the Germans in Europe — marching to battle with much musical fanfare, colors flying, and loud drums in tight formations in the middle of the American wilderness, easy pickings for the French and Indians waiting for them behind trees and rocks and attacking amidst loud war-cries. Braddock’s forces were decimated by a group half its side; those who survived fled in a panic. Braddock himself was killed and Washington had two horses shot from beneath him and later discovered four holes in his uniform from musket balls. He had tried to warn Braddock, since he himself had once before fought against the same foes with a small group of militia from Virginia which met nearly the same fate. Washington had learned his lesson, but Braddock wasn’t going to listen to a brash, young colonial who hadn’t ever received proper (English) military training. So much for smug self-complacency.

Washington Irving tells us about the lessons George Washington learned from his two failures and from his earlier experience in the wilderness surveying for a close family friend for little or no wages.

“In a letter to his brother Augustine, then a member of Assembly at Williamsburg, [Washington] casts up the result of his frontier experience. ‘I was employed,’ he writes, ‘to go on a journey in the winter, when I believe few or none would have undertaken it, and what did I get by it? — my expenses borne! I was then appointed, with trifling pay, to conduct a handful of men to Ohio. What did I get by that? Why, after putting myself to a considerable expense in equipping and providing necessaries for the campaign, I went out, was soundly beaten and lost all! Came in, and had my commission taken from me, or, in other words, my command reduced under pretense of an order from [England]. I then went out a volunteer with General Braddock and lost all my horses and many other things. But this being a voluntary act, I ought not to mention it, nor should I have done it, were it not to show that I have been on the losing order ever since I entered the service, which is now nearly two years.’

“What a striking lesson is furnished by this brief summary! How little was he aware of the vast advantages he was acquiring in this school of bitter experience! ‘In the hand of Heaven he stood,’ to be shaped and trained for its great purpose, and every trial and vicissitude of his early life fitted him to cope with one or another of the varied and multifarious duties of his future destiny.”

What a striking lesson, indeed. So here we are told that one of the greatest men this country ever produced learned valuable lessons from his failures! Can you believe it? We know better, of course, because social scientists in what Christopher Lasch disdainfully calls our “helping professions” have convinced us that we shouldn’t allow the kids to fail, either in school or at home: it’s bad for their self-esteem. Welcome to the age of entitlement.

One day soon, after our culture fades into oblivion, and the “counter-culture” has become firmly entrenched, the epitaph will be written and it will go something like this: “These people were stupid enough to listen to supposed “experts” who told them that children shouldn’t fail. If they had used common sense and read some history they would have known better.”

Propaganda

As we all know, propaganda is a concerted effort to get people to believe something and presumably to act on those beliefs. Effective propaganda is based on bombast and rhetoric that appeals to our fears and desires: it may or may not involve blatant falsehoods, as Paul Ryan’s speech at the RNC tended to do. Usually, it involves half-truths — that is, statements that have a modicum of truth in them and seem plausible if one doesn’t really think about them. And the propagandist does not want listeners to think about what they hear!

Let’s say I want you to vote for my candidate, Jones. Now It is generally known that Jones was divorced a few years ago and later married a woman who had been his secretary. A good propagandist will twist the facts and embellish them so the story comes out that Jones is a womanizer who was unfaithful and left his wife high and dry after his torrid love affair with his secretary in a Miami hotel. If he is the least bit concerned about law suits, he will rely heavily on innuendo — a suggestion that Jones is a womanizer, not a bald-faced statement to that effect (“Jones was seen by several witnesses coming out of a Miami hotel with his secretary several months before his divorce.”). You get the picture: filter in a few “facts” but make sure you create the impression that the man is scum and not worthy of anyone’s vote: use loaded language and strong emotive overtones. The idea is to persuade, not to tell the truth. In fact truth is the real victim here — if it is not Jones.

The radicals just prior to the American revolution had a huge problem: how to persuade the majority of Americans who considered themselves loyal British citizens that they must cut all ties with the mother country and go to war? As a number of historians have noted, the remarkable thing is that the revolution happened at all: Americans really had very few gripes with the mother country and all were of a mind to regard revolution as a last resort. Don’t underestimate the power of words carefully chosen!

To begin with, of course, they stopped calling Britain the “mother country.” They used emotive language, calling Britain “the rotten island” that was out to pillage America and steal its wealth, rape its women and turn its children into slaves. In fact, the propagandists in the mid-eighteenth century used the term “slavery” again and again to great effect. The idea was to instill in the American citizens — many of whom right up to the end, even after Lexington and Concord, regarded themselves as loyal British citizens — a love of liberty and a hatred of England. They insisted that Great Britain would “overwhelm the virtue of the people” of America. As John Miller tells us in his remarkable study of the period (Origins of the American Revolution), “the America of 1775 was made to appear tied to a bankrupt, rotting state that sought to keep itself alive by sucking the strength from its colonies.” Further, “every shilling squeezed from the colonies, Americans were told, went to ‘tyrants and debauchees‘ and was spent on vices that would have made Nero blush.” Note the clever use of exaggeration and bombast: arouse the emotions of the listener or reader and generate a hatred of the desired object, Britain. And keep stressing Britain’s desire to tax Americans, to reduce Americans to slavery. Sound familiar?

It worked, of course, as millions of Americans in a very brief period were persuaded to go to war against the most powerful nation on earth — a nation that had only yesterday been a trusted ally of the colonists and their protector against a hostile world, expelling the French from the continent. It is indeed food for thought. With Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in the lead the British radicals were not the only effective propagandists the world has ever known but they did perform an amazing turnaround in a very short time. And it was done without radio or TV. Truly remarkable.

We need to think about this at this time because there are unscrupulous people who are busy marketing their politicians like boxes of cereal and they desperately want to sell them to us without letting us know what the ingredients are. And the underlying rule is: the end justifies the means. It matters not if what we say is true, we shall repeat it often enough that people will come to believe it in the end. If it turns out later to be false, it will be too late: strike quickly and often and repeat the message until it is no longer questioned. The last thing the propagandist wants is for the listener, viewer, or reader to think about what is said. Logic and reasoning have no place at the table of the propagandist: it’s all about persuasion at any cost. Be on your guard! It’s out there and it’s out to get your vote!

Taxed Enough Already?

I have had the audacity to suggest that we need to change our mind-set about paying taxes. We lump taxes together with death as the two things we dread and can be certain of. But I suggested that we think of taxes as a way of helping our neighbors who may be in need and improving our schools which are failing to get the job done. We pay fewer taxes than most of the people in the “developed” countries and our schools are near the bottom of that group of countries as well. There may be a connection.

In reflecting on this issue, I came across an article in the British paper The Guardian in which the author suggested that Brits — who also dread taxes — think about Sweden where the attitude toward taxes is downright positive. In a recent poll, it was revealed that a growing number of Swedes are pleased to pay taxes because they feel their tax money does so much good. As the article went on to explain:

One way to examine the issue is to compare state help provided by the British government to one which traditionally charges much higher taxes: Sweden. Swedes support the second-highest tax burden in the world – after Denmark’s – with an average of 48.2 per cent of GDP going to taxes. Yet Sweden, along with equally high-taxing Denmark and Norway, tops almost every international barometer of successful societies.

Swedes’ personal income tax can be as little as 29 per cent of their pay, but most people (anyone earning over £32,000) will pay between 49 and 60 per cent through a combination of local government and state income tax.

And yet, the Swedes are happy, the article goes on to explain. What angers them is people who won’t pay their taxes and therefore fail to support national programs that help make the country strong, their kids smarter, their economy healthier, and the people well off.

The key here is twofold: First, the positive attitude of the Swedes is predicated on the good the tax money results in: better schools, free lunches for the kids, excellent teachers, and fewer people in poverty. Secondly, the Swedes don’t spend 60% of their tax revenue on the military. They are not supporting armed forces around the world that are presumably keeping us safe from our enemies. Let’s reflect on these points one at a time.

To take the first point first, the common perception in this country is that much of our tax money is wasted on the poor who are all crackheads and busily making one another pregnant with unwanted children. I have written to this point as it is a misconception that is widely accepted among so many Americans who pay taxes in the 10-35% range and who really would rather hang on to all their money and spend it on themselves. But there would certainly have to be some housecleaning and a good deal more accountability before enough people in this country became convinced that their money is being well spent on those in need, on improving the schools, and helping to save the planet from our mindless abuse. There is much good being done already, but more needs to be done and people need reassurance that their money is being well spent.

But I must say the second point above is the sticking point for me. We spend an inordinate amount of money on the military, thereby increasing profits among the multinational corporations who help them wage war. It’s not clear why we need such a gargantuan military presence and I sometimes wonder if it is the military presence itself that creates fear in others and results in them becoming our enemies in the first place. In other words, we are scaring the hell out of everyone else on the planet with our armed presence around the world and that may be what makes them take up arms against us — which in turn makes it necessary for us to increase military spending to protect ourselves against our enemies. It may indeed be a vicious circle. If we are not in fact a bellicose nation, we appear to be so. Perhaps if we presented a friendlier face to the rest of the world the army and navy could “stand down,” as they say in military parlance.

In any event, there are at least two obstacles to the citizens of this nation adopting a more positive attitude toward paying taxes, both of which are based on fear (and possible misconceptions) and neither of which contributes to a healthier and happier world.

Taxing Situation

I have been reading a history of early British America — America before the revolution. It is intriguing. The Americans were a recalcitrant people who really didn’t want to cooperate with the British in protecting their own frontier. Further, they were a bit of a burden to the British who spent hundreds of thousands of pounds over seven years protecting that frontier against the French and Indians in the New World. It was costing the British about £350,000 a year to maintain their army in America even after the war.

Of course, the British had been fighting the French for centuries so that was nothing new. But the fact that they had to protect fiercely independent colonists across the pond against an ancient foe and their new allies was not something they welcomed. And the fact that it cost thousands of pounds and placed the Mother country in debt up to her ears created tensions between Britain and its New World colonies. The solution proposed by Lord of the Treasury George Grenville was to tax the colonists and recoup some of the losses.

The initial tax in 1733 (in the form of a “duty”) was on molasses that came from the West Indies and was used by New Englanders to make rum. The tax was generally ineffective and simply encouraged smuggling in the colonies. But when the sugar tax was levied in 1763, and actively enforced, it began to bring the disparate colonies together as one and to create strong resistance that eventually led to the Revolution. Until I read this book I was unaware of how independent each of the colonies was from the others and yet how the people in the distinct colonies all felt themselves to be British citizens — and therefore privileged above the rest of the world — but not the least bit beholden to the Mother Country for protecting them against enemies. But it was taxation that brought them together and actually helped to create some sense of unity out of the diverse — and very different — American colonies (think: Massachusetts and Virginia who were worlds apart in so many ways and never really got on the same page).

Taxation, especially the Stamp Act, got the colonists all riled up; it was something to be avoided like the plague. That has never changed. We still lump taxes together with death as the two things we fear most and neither of which can be avoided. And it is that attitude that has given birth to the Tea Party and its insistence that there be no more taxes — in the spirit of the early colonists about whom I dare say most Tea Partiers know very little, if anything at all.

The problem is that there is another side to the issue: taxes are essential for the running of the individual states and the country itself whether we like it or not. And as noted by one of my favorite blog-buddies, our country is taxed at a lower rate than almost every other developed country in the world yet we complain the loudest. Perhaps this is part of our inheritance (as noted above, we have a long tradition of complaining about taxes), but it is unseemly and also unworldly. Taxes are essential to the well-being of each and every one of us. As noted by another of my favorite bloggers, our tax money does immense good. Not only are taxes necessary to maintain a strong defense against terrorism (a point that is accepted by almost all) but they are also necessary to maintain social programs that benefit those who are most in need and ultimately make us a stronger nation (a point that is rejected by many).

To be sure there are abuses, as critics are quick to point out. They know — or have heard about — a fellow who takes his student loans and buys himself a new car, or, perhaps, $15,000 worth of weapons that are later used in a shooting in a movie theater. These things certainly happen. But this money also makes it possible for people in need to keep their collective heads above water, to buy food, clothing, and shelter for their struggling families. And we must never forget that. Instead of focusing on the abuses and the waste we can all attest to, let’s instead focus on the immense good that our taxes do to not only those in real need but all of us who benefit from health care and better schools for our children. After all, we are supposed to be a charitable people. We need to alter our mind-set and start to think of taxation not in conjunction with death, but with life itself.